Veteran comics artist Trina Robbins (Photo/Jessica Christian)
Veteran comics artist Trina Robbins (Photo/Jessica Christian)

Veteran of underground comics scene adapts her father’s Yiddish tales

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Trina Robbins says she was an ungrateful child. But she’s making up for that now.

Growing up in Queens, New York, the young Robbins — like many children of Jewish immigrants — was uninterested in learning Yiddish, her father’s first language. Nor did she care about a Yiddish book sitting on the shelf, “A Minyen Yidn (un Andere Zakhn),” which her father, Max B. Perlson, published in 1938.

“I hated the whole Yiddish thing,” the San Francisco resident said in an interview.

Now Robbins, an award-winning veteran of the underground comics scene, has given new life to her father’s book of stories with the spring publication of “A Bunch of Jews (And Other Stuff)” — the graphic-novel version of his 80-year-old work.

The original book was a slim collection of stories set in Perlson’s native village of Duboy, Belarus, as well as his adopted home in Brooklyn. Most describe, in affectionate but mocking terms, the characters of Duboy, from a penny-pincher who instead of paying out money counts it into his own hand, to a pious man so zealous he asks God for his credentials. Because they have a biting edge, Robbins said, the book wasn’t popular with the other Duboy men who had come to the U.S.

In fact, it’s very possible they were “extremely offended,” she said.

Cover of “A Minyen Yidn,” painted by Barbara “Willy” Mendes, depicts author Trina Robbins as a child with her father, Max B. Perlson.
Cover of “A Minyen Yidn,” painted by Barbara “Willy” Mendes, depicts author Trina Robbins as a child with her father, Max B. Perlson.

Robbins, 79, had never read her father’s book; she didn’t even own a copy. It came back into her life after her daughter, Casey, recently found a version online. Curious to finally read the book for herself, Robbins got in touch with native Yiddish speaker Hershl Hartman, who translated it for her.

“Almost as soon as I read the translation, I said this has to be a graphic novel,” she said.

Robbins will be at the Jewish Community Library on Thursday, Nov. 2 to talk about the process of rediscovering the book and then remaking it.

Library program coordinator Noa Albaum said the event, which is co-sponsored by the Cartoon Art Museum and KlezCalifornia, is unusual because of its crossover appeal. “This is a special event because Trina Robbins is mostly known for her other work that is not specifically about the Jewish experience,” she said.

Robbins was a founder of “Wimmen’s Comix,” an anthology that ran from 1972 to 1992. She also is the co-author of “Women and the Comics,” a series on historical female cartoonists, and “Pretty in Ink: North American Women Cartoonists 1896-2013,” which inspired a Cartoon Art Museum exhibition in 2014 using material from Robbins’ collection. In 1986, Robbins was hired by DC Comics to draw a four-issue limited series, “The Legend of Wonder Woman.” She also created “Sandy Comes Out,” the first comic strip to feature an out lesbian.

The first issue of a 1986 Wonder Woman miniseries illustrated by Trina Robbins
The first issue of a 1986 Wonder Woman miniseries illustrated by Trina Robbins

Robbins received a Will Eisner Comic Industry Award this year for best archival project for the “Complete Wimmen’s Comix.” She was inducted into the Eisner Hall of Fame in 2013 and has published a memoir, “Last Girl Standing.”

Howard Freedman, the library’s director, said that while “lost” Yiddish works are regularly being rediscovered, Robbins’ creative project was unique. “It’s both an act of rescuing something, and also an act of reinterpreting it,” he said.

Robbins said the stories — with their quick setups and clever punch lines — were perfect for comic adaptation. Once she had created scripts for the best 13 stories, she asked different artists to illustrate each one. The result is a book of completely diverse artistic styles depicting shtetl life.

Robbins sent the artists photos to reference, including of her father, who ends up as a character in a number of the stories. Flipping to one page in the graphic novel, Robbins points to a man with dark hair.

“That’s absolutely recognizable as my father when he was young,” she said fondly.

Photos were an important resource, Robbins said, because not all of the artists were Jewish and not everyone had an idea of what an Eastern European shtetl looked like. One was Steve Leialoha, who is Robbins’ life partner and has worked with Marvel and DC Comics, among others. Despite making careful use of the photos, he said he got several notes from translator Hartman after publication telling him what he had gotten wrong.

From "Sally Comes Out" by Trina Robbins
From “Sally Comes Out” by Trina Robbins

“He said I made the buildings too tall,” Leialoha said with a smile.

Leialoha illustrated the first story in the book, “Bizness,” by taking Perlson’s words and imagining them in a new context — an old man sitting on a stoop and speaking to a world that is largely deaf to him. The story jumps back and forth between New York City and Duboy and ends when a young woman, patterned on Robbins’ granddaughter, leads the Perlson character inside for dinner.

“It just seemed like the most fun to draw,” Leialoha of his pick.

Perlson came to the U.S. at age 16 and worked as a tailor. While Robbins was still a child, he became a stay-at-home dad due to Parkinson’s disease. Robbins’ mother, Bessie Perlson, supported the family as a teacher. Though both parents were Yiddish speakers, they didn’t pass it on — Robbins said they used it only to talk about things they didn’t want the kids to understand.

For Robbins, the book is a connection with her past that in some ways makes up for the questions she never thought to ask her father about his life. But it’s also another expression of her craft — creating groundbreaking work that doesn’t rely for inspiration on what anyone else is doing. And Robbins thinks her father would be fine with that.

“I think he would have approved,” she said.

Trina Robbins will talk about her graphic novel, “A Bunch of Jews (And Other Stuff), from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 2 at the Jewish Community Library, 1835 Ellis St. S.F. Details here.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.